How Your Old Phone is Polluting Nigeria

Have you ever wondered what has happened to your old phone? Is it in some drawer, did you exchange it for a newer model or did it end up on a landfill in a developing country? This last scenario is very likely because it is cheaper to transport our e-waste to developing countries than recycle it ourselves. This was one the confronting facts shared by Chimere Ohajinwa, a public health specialist, during Green Office’s first lunch lecture.

The e-waste lunch-lecture, December 11th, 2017.

Research in Nigeria

Ohajinwa’s talk was centred on the topic of e-waste, an issue she has spent much time researching and reporting on. E-waste is short for electronic waste and includes any discarded household devices, phones, laptops etc. For her PhD research at Leiden University’s Institute of Environmental Sciences, Ohajinwa travelled to three different locations in Nigeria to conduct tests on the level of environmental pollution on and around e-waste processing sites. Her results leave little doubt: action has to be taken for the sake of the environment and workers’ health.

Valuable e-waste

E-waste recycling is the most expensive type of recycling compared to, for example, paper or plastics. This makes it unattractive for governments to invest in sufficient collecting and processing infrastructure. “In developed countries it is more expensive to repair our old phone than to buy a new one. In developing countries the opposite is true.” This leads to large-scale informal collection and unregulated processing in developing countries, where for example useless devices are burned to extract valuable metals and minerals.

 Source: Al Jazeera News

Workers’ health

Processing e-waste in unprotected ways leads to soil contamination and exposes workers to serious health issues. In many developing countries workers, including pregnant women and children, work on the processing of e-waste without special protection gear such as gloves and masks. The effects of breathing in and touching certain chemicals during the process of extracting the valuable metals and minerals can manifest years later, for example through respiratory problems or cancer. Ohajinwa emphasises the lack of awareness amongst workers. “When I ask workers if they have suffered any occupational injuries they think of cuts and blood. They don’t link the growth of cancer twenty years down the line to their current jobs.” This means that workers won’t demand special protection gear. However, Ohajinwa emphasises, a radical improvement of the situation doesn’t lie solely with the workers. “For them it is about getting on day to day.” The ones having to take responsibility are consumers in the West. We have to make demands for better regulation of where our e-waste ends up.

 Source: Al Jazeera News

Governmental action

One of the solutions Ohajinwa sees to this issue is to have more effective enforcement of imports and exports legislation. “The e-waste business works as a cartel involing some illegal trades” Ohajinwa explains. For every 25% of useful e-waste, businesses in developing countries are also forced to take 75% old electronic devices that are useless to them. If there would be fairer trade deals these businesses would be more profitable and could provide better circumstances for their workers. Nonetheless, she also thinks more awareness should be raised amongst the workers to demand special protective gear and better work circumstances. However 66% of Africa’s economy is informal, with similar values across Asia. The e-waste industry in developing countries is largely unregulated, which makes effective governmental enforcement very hard.

 Source: Al Jazeera News

Join the E-Waste campaign!

If you want to recycle responsibly, join the Green Office’s Funky Phone Challenge.
On the 15th of January the Green Office will place an E-Waste Arcade at Lipsius. This is an old-fashioned game arcade, that collects mobile phones in exchange for an interactive game! All the collected e-waste will be recycled responsibly by E-Waste Arcades.

The E-waste arcade: let’s make recycling fun!

If you are interested in finding out more about this challenge, join the Green Office for the second Lunch-Lecture by Timmy de Vos, co-organizer of the Funky Phone Challenge, on January 15th from 13:00 – 14:30 at Plexus Spectruumzaal.

See you there (and bring those old phones from your homes)!

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